How to keep reader comments civil

by Carl Natale on May 29, 2010

NPR has a thoughtful story on trying to keep nasty commens out of newspaper web sites.

What’s interesting is that it looks at the psychology of commenting and doesn’t try to lay the blame on anonyminity. I agree that anonymous profiles don’t explain all the ire and negativity.

First, there needs to be motivation to make a comment. “Hmm, that’s interesting,” rarely motivates anyone to do anything. But some good old outrage will drive people to write letters to the editor and comments on news stories. So right off the bat you’re working with an angry crowd.

Second, I have seen many people use social media accounts to be very uncivil. They use their real names and photos. Part of this problem may lie in my definition of uncivil. But that’s part of the problem overall. One commenter’s clever dig is seen as an over the line insult by another. Exposure doesn’t explain all the problems.

Here’s the problem. Reader comments on newspaper stories usually amount to graffiti. The newspaper publishes a story, enables readers to comment on them and moves on. The readers react to something they read in the comments or story and move on. A lot of times they don’t read the comments. They just post what they want to say.

This isn’t conversation anymore than the spray paint on the wall is dialogue. Commenters are taggers who simply want to make a point and prove how clever they are.

Go back to the NPR piece. There’s some effort to tone down negativity by participating in the conversation, making it two-way:

Lila King, a senior producer at, doesn’t think that forcing commenters to reveal their identity is going to resolve the problem. She says CNN has always checked that the e-mails or comments belong to real people. She thinks the only real solution is to have a real, live human being curate and participate in the discussion.

“Really, it’s the human touch,” she says. “It’s actually staying inside the conversation and being active and highlighting comments that we think editorially are really interesting or significant. Set the tone for what you hope the conversation will be.”

King thinks if you reward people for thoughtful comments, the site will be more likely to get more of them — and fewer of the hateful sort of comments that were posted on Leavey’s health care letter.

I don’t think the reward is totally necessary. It’s a nice touch. But what makes it work is having someone respond to comments and creating a dialogue. Conversation requires active engagement. I’m sorry but publishing a story or blog post and opening it up to comments isn’t conversation.

That’s a lovely idea but it requires a lot of work. Many papers have moderators. But they’re more like gardeners – weeding out the crabgrass. And that’s a full time job for many. How can they effectively engage in a newspaper’s worth of conversations? They probably can’t.

Bloggers have a better chance because they’re dealing in fewer conversations. And they’re likely dealing in a niche community.

If you’re looking for civil engagement and conversation on the Internet, look for a community. These groups of people do a very good job adding value through comments and policing the discussions. The trolls usually get shouted down quickly.

There you go. Civility requires engagement and focus. Good luck.

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